16 Facts About LeVar Burton

Rich Fury/Getty Images
Rich Fury/Getty Images / Rich Fury/Getty Images

Actor and host LeVar Burton is a cultural icon. From his start in Roots to his decades-long role hosting Reading Rainbow, Burton has spent years inspiring and educating legions of fans of all ages. But who is LeVar Burton? Read on below for some fun, educational facts about the man who has dedicated life to educating all of us. You’ll know all there is to know about Burton almost as fast as you can sing, "Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high."

1. LeVar Burton was born on a military base.

LeVar Burton (a.k.a. Levardis Robert Burton) was born to Levardis Robert Martyn Burton and Erma Jean at the U.S. Army Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in what was then West Germany on February 16, 1957. His father wasn’t an officer, but rather employed as a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

2. Being an “army brat” gave LeVar Burton a lot of time to read comic books.

Burton credits his time on military bases with fostering his love of reading. Writing for The White House blog during Barack Obama’s presidency, Burton recalled, “It wasn’t always easy living on base, where we didn’t have access to the most recent American movies, books, T.V. shows—all those pop-culture staples so important to schoolchildren. But that lack of access meant that the cultural staples we did have access to were devoured, treasured … and eventually bartered. American cultural items were currency to a military child, and the most valuable of that currency was comic books. ... It was this experience as a child in a military family, and the excitement, comfort, and escape the comics provided, that helped spark my lifelong love of reading.”

3. LeVar Burton grew up in Sacramento, California.

Burton’s parents split up when he was a kid, and after that, his mother, Erma—an English teacher, social worker, and administrator—brought Burton and his two sisters to Sacramento, California. It was through his mother’s example that Burton learned the importance of serving your community. “My mom talked a lot about not necessarily her job, but her belief that one’s life should be a service to the greater community,” Burton told The Atlantic in 2018. “That was certainly something I picked up and absorbed. Most of the people in my family are in the field of education in one way or another. It’s kind of the family business.”

4. LeVar Burton was put in kindergarten early.

“I changed his birth certificate,” Burton’s mother told Ebony magazine about enrolling Burton in kindergarten when he was only 4. “So all of his classmates were a year older or two than he was. But he always kept up. In fact, he was always at the head of his class.”

5. LeVar Burton thought he might have a higher calling.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Burton as the host of Reading Rainbow, but as a teenager, Burton thought God had a different plan for him—to become a priest. Burton enrolled in a Catholic seminary when he was only 13 and studied there for four years before ultimately deciding the path to priesthood was not for him. When asked by Lola Fadulu at The Atlantic about the most important thing he learned at the seminary, Burton replied, “That I didn’t want to be a priest.”

6. It was the great philosophers who steered LeVar Burton away from priesthood.

Burton’s decision not to become a priest had a little something to do with a teacher he had at seminary, who lent him books by the great philosophers like Lao Tzu and Kierkegaard; reading these texts made Burton realize that he needed to experience the world before he could commit to life in the clergy. Burton did enjoy the pageantry of Catholicism, however, and that’s what led him to realize the theatrics of priesthood could be found in another profession: Acting.

7. Roots was LeVar Burton’s first audition.

Actors around the world might want to skip this next anecdote: Burton landed his breakthrough role of Kunta Kinte in the seminal mini-series Roots on what was his very first professional acting audition. At the time, Burton was only 19 years old and majoring in theater at USC. Burton was prepping to star in the school’s production of Oklahoma!, when Roots casting director Lynn Stallmaster asked the drama department to recommend a young Black actor. Professors put forth Burton’s name, and five weeks after auditioning, he nabbed the role.

8. Roots co-star Cicely Tyson once taught LeVar Burton an important lesson about nature.

During the filming of Roots, Burton understandably wanted to make an impression on Cicely Tyson, the seasoned actress portraying his mother. As Burton wrote in a 2021 essay for Variety, when a “gnarly bug” made its way into their tent between scenes, Burton saw his opportunity and squashed it. But Tyson wasn’t impressed. “Don’t you ever think that because you are bigger than a thing, or more powerful, that you have the right to take its life!” Tyson told Burton. Immediately after, she embraced him, and it was the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship.

9. Being a fan of Star Trek helped LeVar Burton land a role on the show.

After Kunta Kinte, Burton would go on to play a number of memorable roles, including the athlete Ron LeFlore (1978's One in a Million) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (2001's Ali biopic), but among his most famous is that of Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In a 2016 conversation with CreativeLive, Burton recalled how, when he was shooting a TV movie called Emergency Room in the early '80s, he realized that a producer on the film, Robert H. Justman, had been an associate producer on the original Star Trek. “Every day I would find a reason to sit next to him and just pump him for stories,” Burton said. Years later, when prepping to re-launch The Next Generation, Justman remembered Burton’s passion and gave him a call. Burton worked behind the camera as well, directing the most episodes of the show of any cast member.

10. LeVar Burton refused to be typecast based on his race.

One reason why Burton loved Star Trek so much was that the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, prioritized diversity at a time when few were. “I have always said, as an actor, I want to not only recreate life specifically through the Black experience, I want to be a human being in the roles that I play, and a Black man could be a doctor or a lawyer in any given situation, and not always have to have come specifically from the ghetto,” Burton said when testifying before Congress on “Children and Television” in 1983.

11. LeVar Burton was in Zimbabwe when the offer for Reading Rainbow came in.

When Burton’s then-manager, Delores Robinson, got the call for Burton to be on Reading Rainbow, Burton was a filming ABC’s Wide World of Sports on the Zimbabwe River. “He’s not even in the country, but he’ll do it,” Robinson responded. It doesn’t sound like Burton needed much convincing: “I was all in. It made perfect sense to me,” he told Mental Floss in 2017.

12. The behind the scenes of Reading Rainbow wasn’t always pretty.

The impact of Reading Rainbow is undeniable: The show ran on PBS for 26 years, nabbing a Peabody award and 26 Emmys (with Burton himself winning multiple Emmys and NAACP Image awards). But the making of the show wasn’t exactly glamorous: In fact, Burton once had an unfortunate encounter with a sickly elephant who “kept blowing snot all over him.” Burton, a consummate professional, told Mental Floss, “My whole thing was to not interrupt the flow of conversation with the viewer. That’s sometimes difficult to do when you’ve got elephant snot on you. I had goats trying to eat my clothes.”

13. Levar Burton helped to break a Kickstarter record.

Sadly, Reading Rainbow ended in 2006 when the show ran out of funding. In 2015, Burton launched a Kickstarter to reboot Reading Rainbow, which quickly raised $5.4 million pledged from 105,000 backers (breaking the record for most individual contributors previously set by the Veronica Mars film campaign). Unfortunately, due to some legal disputes, a Reading Rainbow reboot never came to pass; Burton instead put the funding into a Reading Rainbow-esque app called Skybrary. He also started a podcast called LeVar Burton Reads, aimed at adults who could use Burton’s dulcet tones in their lives.

14. LeVar Burton has a special place in pop culture.

To fully understand Burton’s cultural significance, look no further than Community, on which Burton guest-starred twice. In one appearance, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) is so nervous about somehow disappointing Burton, his idol, that he is unable to speak in his presence. When Glover later departed the show, his character was written off to enjoy a sailing expedition with Burton. And Barnes, although fictional, is not alone in his admiration. “I wish I were LeVar Burton,” actor Lance Reddick said during an appearance on The Eric Andre Show.

15. You can visit LeVar Burton Park in Sacramento.

In 2019, Sacramento renamed Meadowview Park after their hometown hero, dubbing it LeVar Burton Park. Prior to the dedication, in a very Burton move, he went to visit the kids at the local elementary school. “We just came from John Still [Middle School] and my message to the kids was ‘If I can do it, so can you,’” Burton said during the dedication, which was followed by an honor from the Sacramento City Council.

16. LeVar Burton’s love of Jeopardy! pre-dates the Alex Trebek days.

It’s no secret that Burton is aiming to become the next host of Jeopardy! In addition to being a renowned actor and beloved host (who guest-hosted Jeopardy! in July 2021), Burton is also a Celebrity Jeopardy! winner—and a longtime fan of the show in general. “I have been watching Jeopardy! more or less every night of my life since Art Fleming [the host of Jeopardy! in the 1960s and ‘70s] was host,” Burton told The New York Times Magazine. “Jeopardy! is a cultural touchstone, and for a Black man to occupy that podium is significant.”